Are women and men equally capable of serving as top corporate leaders?

10/06/2016 08:33 am ET

Read this headline from The Guardian: "GSK makes Emma Walmsley most powerful woman in FTSE 100”.

It is promising right? It celebrates women and an important milestone, the appointment of a woman leading the biggest pharma company in Europe. I was very excited when the news of Emma Walmsley new CEO of GSK broke a couple of weeks ago. When I read this headline the excitement and pride vanished. You are now wondering why. I ask you to read it one more time and notice. Do you see anything wrong? Anything that triggers you?

I see implicit bias. I see a peculiar choice of words which in my view carries an implicit bias around women in leadership. Let me explain why. Emma Walmsley, becomes in the title of this article the passive receiver rather than the active author of her career. She is not presented as the woman who made it to the CEO level with her actions and career but the object which is made powerful by somebody else. I do not think anyone can make it to the CEO level without intention. For sake of integrity and clarity the article does acknowledge and celebrate the wonderful career of Emma Walmsley. It does speak to the fact that only few female do cover such a role in big corporations.

I think that one of the reasons why there are so few women covering C roles is because of the tone of this headline and of all the others out there. I do not believe this was intentional by The Guardian. I think it is the result of the implicit bias we all carry. Yes, me included and you who are reading too. How empowering would have been instead a title like: "Emma Walmsley becomes the most powerful woman in FTSE 100."

The world has been created naturally diverse, what we have to work on is inclusion, to deliver the potential of diversity. One of the main roadblocks to equality is implicit bias which, if not addressed, will continue to drive the way we do business, politics and live our lives. The Guardian's headline to me is the perfect example of a cultural bias that sees women as not eligible to take the power unless it is given to them. Unless somebody makes them powerful. The press, and not only, is full of examples that speak out loud the bias we carry around women, just consider the presidential campaign in the United States. We have the responsibility to acknowledge and discover our own biases and call each other out if we want to become more inclusive. Inclusion must be an intentional choice.

While equality is big among corporations and governments, there is still double standards aimed at women that are hard to get rid off as they are part of our heritage and culture. I am sure that when asked the vast majority of people believe women and men are equally capable of serving as top corporate leaders, and we have to acknowledge that when male CEOs talk, it’s fair to say no one’s thinking instead about what he’s wearing.

There are studies which prove that the small number of female CEOs is due to the fact that women are held to higher standards than their male counterparts. Similarly, other researches report that female CEOs are far more likely to be pressured and second-guessed by shareholders than men occupying the same leadership position. Even today, after all the equal opportunity laws, professional women too often have to bring much more to the table than a man would have to bring to receive a job, higher pay, or simply recognition for achievements. Men and women may believe female leaders are just as qualified as their male peers, but certain stigmas persist. Our cultures denies these stigmas and stereotype at our loss. Studies have shown that women in power exhibit more symptoms of depression compared to their male peers. One of the reasons is that unconsciously we do not associate the word leader and its traits with female. Our bias sees female leaders as abnormal and therefore they face more resistance than men in leadership role. Assertive women are punished for being unfeminine; women who conform to stereotypes are deemed too meek for top jobs. We must admit our own expression of discomfort with women in positions of power to get pass it. If you are now telling yourself that you have no discomfort nor bias, let's do a quick test all together. Close your eyes and picture a CEO. Is that person wearing a suit or a dress? Chances are, you’re not picturing a lady.

A long road towards inclusion. There is a current predominant focus on the numbers, on the “how many” women, races, you name it, rather than on inclusion. It has become a battle of numbers that will increase the gap as it does not address the real issue: lack of inclusion.

These women who made it to the C level serve as excellent mentors and examples for other women. They deserve to be acknowledged and acclaimed because they actively aspired to achieve the corner office. I believe Emma Walmsley made herself the most powerful woman in FTSE 100 and her success shows that roadblocks can be removed.

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